Ticket sale a premium to Charlotte Expansion hopefuls to sell luxury seats

April 21, 1993|By Jon Morgan | Jon Morgan,Staff Writer

In a move that advances Charlotte, N.C., in its competition with Baltimore and three other cities hoping to land pro football franchises, the NFL said yesterday it will allow the communities to demonstrate their football passion with advance sales of luxury seats and sky boxes.

A committee of team owners, meeting in Orlando, Fla., also cleared the way for Charlotte to proceed with its plan to finance a stadium with fees paid by season-ticket buyers.

It was a clean sweep for Charlotte, considered to rank alongside Baltimore and St. Louis as the strongest candidates for franchises. Had the owners decided to block the city's financing plan or to disallow the premium-seat drive designed to prove Charlotte's viability, it would have dealt a significant blow to the Carolina effort.

The Charlotte group hopes that a dramatic response to a premium-ticket drive would demonstrate that there is sufficient support in its market not only for a franchise, but also to finance its stadium.

"I think it was a good day. . . . It was good in that we were able to go through a step that could have presented a problem," said Max Muhleman, a consultant working for the Charlotte bid.

The league said it was showing no favoritism, but was doing what it had to do to ensure the success of the two teams it wants to add for the 1995 season. Plans call for two new franchises to be awarded this fall from among Baltimore, St. Louis, Memphis, Tenn., Jacksonville, Fla., and Charlotte.

"We felt it's not to the benefit of any particular city," said Roger Goodell, the NFL official overseeing expansion.

Participants in the premium-ticket-sale drive, to be held this summer, will be asked to accept deposits, refundable only if a city fails to obtain a team.

"This is not to see who can sell the most seats, but to see if each city can support the numbers in their applications," Goodell said.

Ground rules will be established, and a city can opt not to participate without endangering its application, he said.

According to officials contacted yesterday in the finalist cities, Charlotte and Jacksonville will participate in the premium-seat campaign, Memphis is leaning toward participating and Baltimore and St. Louis have not decided. The last three cities publicly opposed the plan.

Baltimore has been the harshest critic of the plan. Maryland Stadium Authority chairman Herbert J. Belgrad even suggested at one point that it demonstrates an NFL bias for Charlotte. He since has moderated his tone.

The city's NFL committee -- composed of representatives of the stadium authority and the Greater Baltimore Committee, a regionalbusiness group -- will decide if Baltimore will participate in the seat drive, Belgrad said.

"We have to discuss the pros and cons," he said.

"We have not shied away from the challenge. This is a city that still has scars from a very bad experience with the NFL, so we're hesitant, with the uncertainty of the race, to involve the fans like that any more than necessary," he said, referring to the Colts' move to Indianapolis in 1984.

Charlotte officials were the only representatives of the finalist cities invited to yesterday's meeting. They delivered a 45-minute presentation on their financing plan, which involves charging season-ticket holders one-time fees of $500 and up before they can buy tickets.

The NFL has not decided whether to allow the cities to pick and announce team names -- which several cities want to do to help market their premium seats -- but is leaning against it, Goodell said. That further could complicate the picture for Baltimore, because it is the only city with more than one ownership group vying for a team.

The lack of public financing for a stadium -- and the resulting debt services -- is the most significant weakness of Charlotte's application. Baltimore and St. Louis have public funding in place, and the other cities would renovate existing stadiums.

Muhleman said the owners did not specifically approve their plan, but, by not disallowing it, gave the city a green light to proceed. Charlotte will release the details of its plan in a few weeks, he said.

Although disappointed with the decision to conduct the drive, Belgrad said it does not diminish what he views as Baltimore's major advantage over Charlotte. Public financing spares the local franchise a significant debt service, freeing up money that can be invested in players and shared with visiting teams along with other ticket receipts.

Belgrad downplayed the league's approval of Charlotte's financing plan, saying it was unlikely the owners would or could have disapproved it anyway.

"I don't think anything has changed in that Baltimore is one of the two best places with respect to stadium financing," Belgrad said.

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